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Knight Vs. Funk: An End to ‘Brotherhood’

Mel, Mark & Don vs. Terry

Grand Funk Railroad

GRAND FUNK RAILROAD; Grand Funk Railroad,Copenhagen, Dec. 1971.

Jorgen Angel/Getty

NEW YORK – — One night during Grand Funk’s 1971 American tour, Mark Farner went to Terry Knight, the man who had managed the group from obscurity to gold records, Lear jets, and ballparks full of cheering crowds, and said he was no longer willing to go down on his knees on stage and pretend to ball his guitar. He would hurl the guitar through the air, dance with it and wiggle it, but he drew the line at intercourse.

Terry couldn’t understand why. Mark tendered a vague explanation: It made the knees of his pants dirty.

“This fucking kid was taking home $50,000 a night and he couldn’t afford a cleaning bill for his fans,” Knight fumed. “I told him, ‘Look, Mark, I’ll buy you a new pair of pants every night.’ “

Mark: “I just felt that wasn’t where I was at anymore. It might have been for a while, but it seemed like I had to get too phony to do it. I just couldn’t go that route. I have to feel right, you know? It’s got to be a natural feeling in order to enjoy it, and to have the crowd enjoy it. People can see that, I think.”

Terry: “I told him, ‘Never mind what you feel inside as a gentle individual, Mark. Part of what the audience wants and demands from Mark Farner is a savage animal on stage. They want to see you rape the guitar.’ “

Mark: “I did it a few more times. Then I thought, ‘Man, I can’t let the cat do it, if I think something’s wrong.’ So I quit doing it. But there are other things I do to make up for that, I think. That’s what I told him.”

Terry: “That was the day I knew this group was going to crumble like a cookie. . . . When a person is hungry, he’ll do almost anything. . . . After they had made it, then they wanted it their way.”

* * *

“Mark Farner, Donald G. Brewer and Melvin Schacher, professionally known as Grand Funk Railroad and GFR Enterprises, Ltd.” That is how they are described in their lawsuit against Knight, a document with the heft of a quart of milk, nearly as thick as Knight’s suit against them.

These three plaintiffs/defendants were smoking a joint in the afternoon sun, looking out over the green lawn, steep ravine and forested hillside that Mel owns behind his new house in the Michigan countryside. Mel had sawed most of the branches off a tall pine, because they were strangling another tree.

“It’ll die if you don’t tar up those stumps,” Mark said.

“Yeah, I know.”

“And light has to reach the bottom branches or it will die. That’s just the nature of a pine.”

Farner is a man who seems comfortable only where there are no buildings taller than two stories. On a 110-acre farm near Hartland, Michigan, he breeds horses as he expects to for the rest of his life. Like Mel and Don he had no education beyond high school; he stumbles over longer words but is not embarrassed to use them anyway, and he readily interrupts to ask the meaning of a new word that interests him. He has a consuming interest in nature and the environment.

Don Brewer lives in an apartment in Detroit but shares Mark’s distaste for larger cities. He seemed to regard me, a resident of New York, as a walking miracle of survival; his expression could not have been much different if I had just staggered, dusty but smiling, out of the ruins of Pompeii. Rain in New York, he said, had chewed little holes in his shirt.

Mel Schacher owns a black chopped Harley which he built himself, a couple of less vicious bikes, a jeep and a brown Lincoln sedan. The Lincoln has a tape machine on which he likes to play the Beatles and Grand Funk. He carries little cash and no credit cards, often buying gas by check. His politics lie along the Harley-Lincoln axis: “One thing is sure, if McGovern gets elected, they’ll be a depression.”

His house is an unexceptional split-level which he and his lady have tentatively decorated with thick rust-colored carpets and little wrought iron things to hang on the walls. It might be the home of a successful Oldsmobile dealer or the district manager of a life insurance company.

Dark and silent, Mel built a fire downstairs— – nobody ever seems to sit in the living room of these houses— – while Mark, his long hair in a ponytail, and Don, sitting upright on the floor in perfect posture, shoulders back and spine straight, told their version of how Grand Funk zoomed to success then veered into the dark thicket of The Law.

Terry Knight’s heavily decorated two-bedroom apartment looks out on the Hudson. Smoke-grey plastic panels adorn the walls and even the ceiling. The furniture is glass and chromium. No books, magazines, cigarette butts or old socks clutter the apartment— – nothing clutters it. I ground out a cigar and left the room for a minute; when I came back the ashtray was clean.

One bedroom Terry has converted into an office, the walls of which are covered with photos and other Grand Funk memorabilia. “On the day this is over,” he said, “I’m going to publicly burn all this stuff or give it away.”

Lean, hypertense, cordial and formal, Knight sat down across the room from his bubbling Wurlitzer jukebox to tell his version of the Grand Funk story.

Journalists constantly pretend that every story has two sides, when very often a story has only one side, or three or six. But here, for once, is a tale with two of them, thin as a knifeblade, sharp on both sides.

* * *

Crabs on Cape Cod

High-school football teams, in Flint, Michigan, used to practice a curious pre-game exercise. The whole squad would come running out onto the cold, colorless field, screaming and snarling, and jump on each other. Not on the other team, on each other. A hundred or so of them would pile up, with somebody on the bottom. It was not unusual for both teams to do this, so that the field contained two heaps of players in contrasting colors, each seething and growling like some kind of carnivorous sea anemone.

Mark Farner played linebacker on one such team until he injured his knee. Recuperating, he learned a little guitar and joined a series of local groups, playing Stones and Yardbirds tunes at Saturday night dances, often with only one borrowed amp for all the instruments and the PA as well.

He moved up to the Jazzmasters, a group which played rock but no jazz. Don was on drums. Terry Knight, a local disc jockey who had lost his job, introduced himself and said he wanted to sing and had connections that would help the group. He was right; soon Terry Knight and the Pack had a record out and a sort of reputation in Michigan and neighboring Ohio.

“He did a Mick Jagger thing,” Don recalled. “Terrible singer.”

“I felt sorry for him,” said Mark, who has been called worse things than terrible himself. “But he did have a good rap in between songs.”

Basic Dave Grockowski, a Detroit music buff, sent me a letter describing the band in this period: “Terry Knight was lead singing, blowing harp, and getting deep into being Terry Knight. I remember him introducing one song like this: ‘We’d like to do a song that was written by some very good friends of ours who live in London, England.’ Then they got into ‘Mister You’re a Better Man than I,’ trying to sound exactly like the Yardbirds. . . .

“After Terry Knight quit, the group got really bad.”

On its own, the Pack did a rapid downhill slide— – battles of the bands and so forth— – and collapsed that winter on a New England “tour” where most of the promised dates never turned up. Reciting this familiar tale of hardship, Mark and Don fell to completing each other’s sentences.

Mark: “We went out to Cape Cod in February.”

Don: “The worst.”

“The worst snowstorm of the century.”

“Beginning of ’69 it was.”

“Yeah, February ’69. We were out there in a summer cottage, with a gas heater, melting down snow to drink and use. . . .”

“. . . to shave.”

“We were starving.”

“The managers had split. We didn’t know where.”

“Couldn’t get ahold of them.”

“I had the worst case of fucking crabs in the world.”

“Armpits.”

“Oh, fuck.”

“We were down to oatmeal.”

If this was failure, they wanted success. Don wrote to Terry to ask if he could help.

He could. Knight was performing at the Limelight Gallery in Buffalo and staying at the home of Chuck Klipper, its owner. On May 1, 1969, Mark, Don and their friend Mel, the bass player, signed a recording agreement with Terry in Klipper’s kitchen. They drank a six-pack of beer to celebrate.

The contract obliged Knight to get the group a single within six months, an album within a year and so on. If he complied he could renew the contract for up to three years.

The boys were to get six percent of wholesale of any record sales. Knight told them dramatically, “Before you sign I want you to understand one thing. The minute you sign, you give up your personal lives.” He had never heard the three play together.

As Knight recalls what followed: “I was turned down by virtually everyone in the record industry— – A&M, Columbia, UA, MGM, RCA. I was turned down twice by Capitol. Agency-wise, they had been turned down by Premier Talent and Action Talent. I borrowed $500 from a friend here in New York to go into the studio and record their first demo, “Heartbreaker,” and “High on a Horse.” It was turned down.

Finally, according to Knight, the intervention of a friend got Grand Funk a six-month contract with Capitol, “out of pity.” If true, it must have marked the first appearance of pity in the record business and should be placed in the Guinness Book of Records.

Six weeks of rehearsal in a red brick musicians’ union hall in Flint prepared the group for a tight, polished show at the Atlanta pop festival on the 4th of July. Terry made sure the press heard about the audience’s enthusiastic response, and began booking gigs in the suburbs and medium-sized towns he felt would ready them for bigger things.

Meanwhile he drew up more papers and the boys signed them. GFR Enterprises was formed to receive the personal appearance money Knight expected soon to be flowing in. Employment contracts bound each performer to the organization. A publishing contract gave Knight a share of the royalties to Mark and Don’s songs.

The management contract ran three years with an option for Terry to renew for three more if the group, in their third year, grossed at least $200,000. “The whole thing was planned on making it,” Don said. “That’s what we wanted. We’d had it with playing bars.”

They made it. Terry attributed success to incredible magnetism on stage. Nearly everyone else said it was Knight’s high-voltage hype. Mark, Mel and Don didn’t say anything; they talked to the public only from the stage. Grand Funk scored one gold album after another—the total now is seven—and played bigger and bigger halls, climaxing with Shea Stadium near the end of their 1971 tour. Nobody would have been surprised if Knight had announced that the group would next play, say, to the entire city of Chicago, from a blimp.

GFR now commanded offices, planes, cars and attorneys all slick as beetles, and their board meetings began to sound like GM’s, but more hip.

Mark: “The way it was always laid out and the way we accepted it was that we were four brothers. Four ways— – that was Terry’s rap. And I could dig it. I fell. I just went, ‘Yeah, that’s where it’s at. Brothers.’ We all had the faith.”

Don: “Every time a contract was brought out in front of us, it would be, ‘Hey, we’re brothers.’ We were really into that whole thing. So we just signed.”

* * *

Paul McCartney Complained Too

The brotherhood had begun to erode by the 1971 tour. There was the matter of Mark’s sexual congress with his guitar. Then Mel— – the smallest member of the group— – complained about the sound of his bass and says Terry punched him out of his chair.

In Terry’s eyes, only egotism could have made the boys so irrational.

“They began to believe their own press,” he said, his voice rising rapidly. “They began to believe the absurdity of the statement that they sold $120 million worth of records. They began to believe the absurdity that they actually made $306,000 at Shea Stadium, when they saw the check from Shea Stadium, where there were 5000 unoccupied seats to begin with.”

“They had been believing my hype,” he concluded. The “absurdities” he quoted, you see, came from his own press releases.

According to the group, the problems were less exotic.

Mark: “I feel a certain way about what’s happening to mother nature, and to the people on the planet, and I have an insight into where everything’s going to end up if some steps aren’t taken. So I figured, being as popular as we were at the time, I’d write some ecology songs and get these people hip to what’s going on. Lay it on them.

“So I wrote some songs that said let’s kill pollution, describing pollution in a way to make it, uh, realizable. I played these songs for Terry and he said, ‘Well, it ain’t Grand Funk. You can’t do that.’ “

Terry: “There is rarely a song on any of the Grand Funk albums written by Mark Farner that I didn’t co-write with him in one way or another. But I didn’t take credit for it.”

Mark: “That is not true. Terry helped me – —he thought it was help. He said it had to be a certain way to be put on records, you know. He would tell me to use a different phrasing or something. But he didn’t have anything to do with the direction of the songs or anything like that at all. In fact, he always wanted me to get into other things— – teenybopper, groupie songs and stuff.”

Another complaint was the way Terry produced records. “We settled for what we could get and we didn’t want to insult Terry by asking for another producer,” Mark said.

This charge brought Knight’s voice to a full shout. “They didn’t want to know about the mix. They wanted to split. They had a Lear jet sitting at the airport the night the E Pluribus Funk album was finished because Mark couldn’t wait to get home. . . .

“Nobody said anything except once, after the On Time album, when Mark wanted to know why his guitar didn’t come out louder. The problem with musicians is always the same. Everybody wants to hear their own instrument the loudest. I’ll show you a quote from Paul McCartney where he says, ‘I hated my bass sound.’ George Martin talks about how the biggest problem was that Paul didn’t like the sound of his bass. The Beatles later said in their interviews that in their mixes they could never hear the bass drum. Why the fuck didn’t they say anything to George Martin then? They were selling millions of records.

“Well, I’m in the same position now, so I can relate to it.”

The next sticking point was Grand Funk’s European tour. Mark and Mel flew home early, forcing cancellation of dates in Lyons and Amsterdam. They said they were sick. Knight said they were lying.

Mel placed one delicate hand over his chest. “I had walking pneumonia. It can overtake your entire lungs if you aren’t careful, and lay you right up. I had it in three-quarters of one lung. The doctors over there examined me and said, ‘He’s fit to go on. His temperature is only about 100. It’s possible to perform.’ That was their attitude.”

Mark: “I had something from the water over there. The runs. I was just miserable.”

Terry: “There’s a doctor in Paris who’s already sworn before the Paris government that Mark Farner was not ill. I don’t give a fuck what his Flint, Michigan, doctor says.”

Fighting backstage about performances, quibbling over how to mix three instruments, disputing the state of Mark Farner’s lower digestive tract. . . . Where could things go from there?

Down. GFR by now had so much money that it had to search aggressively for somewhere to invest it. The corporation performed a classic of bullshit-liberal reasoning: Nobody wanted to pay taxes because taxes went to support the war. One lovely tax shelter, thanks to generations of well-tended privilege, was oil. So Grand Funk— – led by the man who wrote let’s-kill-pollution songs and gives the clenched fist salute on stage— – sank better than a million dollars into a company called White Shield Oil & Gas.

Mark: “We were in trouble and we needed a tax shelter. That’s what we were led to believe. White Shield was brought to us and we said, ‘We’ll take it, because we’d rather do that than invest in the war.’ “

Mel: “That was the choice we thought we had.”

Mark: “After the first year I said I didn’t want to put any more money, not one cent, into oil, because of what it was doing. Because it was producing the gasoline that pollutes the air. I protested, like I protested a thousand other things, but nothing happened.”

Terry: “The first and foremost rule was, ‘Don’t pay taxes, because it supports the war.’ Fine. So in order not to pay taxes, I and the accountants and attorneys had to find tax shelters for them, among them urban renewal, real estate and oil. They chose oil because it was a 100 percent tax deduction at that time, as it is today.

“If Mark Farner ever wanted to withdraw funds from White Shield, all he needed to do as a director of the corporation was to call a meeting of the board of directors and withdraw it.”

Mark: “Terry would always say, ‘The only sensible thing for you boys is to put it in oil.’ “

The chassis bolts of GFR started to come loose at a board meeting last November. All the directors were present— – Mark, Mel and Don, each 24 percent shareholders, Terry with 21 percent, and the firm’s attorneys, Howard Beldock and Jerrold Kushnick, who between them owned the remaining seven percent. Beldock’s brother was president of White Shield Oil & Gas.

In the course of business, Mark asked to see Terry’s record production contract with Capitol. Though the group had signed a record contract with Terry back in 1969, Mark says, they had never examined the contract that Terry subsequently signed with Capitol. Mark paged through it and discovered that Knight was getting 16 percent from Capitol. Since his contract with the group gave them six percent, he was taking in five times what any of them were.

Accounts differ as to what happened then.

Don: “I just asked Terry, ‘I thought you were getting two percent, as a producer.’ All the other record deals I’d been associated with, the producer made two percent and that was it.”

Terry says he offered to switch percentages with the group if they were unhappy. He would keep six percent for himself and give them the ten percent.

Mark: “That is false. It is absolutely a lie.”

Terry: “You ask me, do I think the deal was fair? In 1969, I offered them six percent of nothing. Six percent was not unusual for an artist in 1969. Out of my percentage, I paid all the overhead, all attorneys’ fees, all administrative costs, all postage, all distribution costs incurred by the company.”

On the plane back to Detroit, Mark, Mel and Don decided that whatever Terry thought, it didn’t look fair to them. They began to piece together some figures: Terry got 20 percent as their manager (after booking agent commissions). He took half of the publishing royalties on Mark and Don’s songs. (Perhaps more; this is in dispute.) He owned 21 percent of GFR Enterprises, and now it turned out he was getting 5/8ths of the record money.

Serious dollars were at stake. Grand Funk has grossed, by the best informed estimates, $3-$4.5 million in three years, and to Mark, Mel and Don it was beginning to look like Terry had taken more of it than any of them, and perhaps more than all three together.

Their last meeting with Terry was in New York when they got together to view a film of the Shea Stadium concert. Don: “We wanted to hear what was happening with the money, and he didn’t give us the right answers. He gave us a runaround.”

They parted without argument, but Don was soon on the phone with John Eastman. He had asked around and been told that Eastman, Paul McCartney’s brother-in-law, a sandyhaired young man with a vague resemblance to the late Robert Kennedy, was one of the toughest of the music lawyers. After all, Eastman had taken on Allen Klein, the jowly prototype of a sharp-elbowed manager. So he shouldn’t be scared of Terry Knight.

* * *

Passacaglia of the Press Releases

Sifting through the subsequent lawsuits and talking to the parties involved about them is not a pleasant assignment. It is like attending an American Nazi Party wedding on acid. Whichever side you talk to, you are told that the opponents are not merely wrong and destined to lose every dime, but that they are lying, cheating, sexually defective Molochs whose crimes would best be punished, after of course turning them upside down to shake out any stray change, by burning their entrails before their still-living and woeful eyes.

The group’s suit charges that Knight defrauded them, beguiled them into signing unfair, atypical contracts, and misappropriated their funds. Damages: $8 million or so.

Knight’s countersuit (the case is in federal court in New York) alleges that the group breached their contract and in the process damaged his professional reputation, financial standing and emotional health. Damages: $15 million.

Dancing around this pyre, each side issued press releases boasting that they had snatched out the biggest coals. These were dutifully reprinted by the trade magazines even though they revealed little about the litigation. Knight ran an ad in the trades asserting that GFR Enterprises owned the name Grand Funk Railroad, that he was the head of GFR, and so anybody else using the name did so at his peril. The group replied with an ad of their own, saying they owned the name and would defend anyone Terry sued for using it (meaning, essentially, promoters of the group’s next tour).

Finally a federal magistrate strongly advised both sides to stop trying the case in the press, so they allegedly started spying on each other to spot violations, and if they thought they had found one they told that to the press. Tales of wiretapping, bugging, threats and other intrigue have been surfacing with depressing regularity, and the case is still a long way from court.

The group has a new album out, recorded without benefit of Terry Knight, and is scheduled to do a 35-city tour, winding up December 23rd at Madison Square Garden. Their new manager (in their own eyes, not Terry’s) is Andy Cavaliere, their former road manager. Twenty-seven years old (Mark is 23, Mel 24, Don 21), he has never managed anyone before. He is not, he said, like Terry:

“I’m going to let them make esthetic decisions in terms of their music. I don’t want the same type of control that Terry had over the group. They’re a little older now.”

For this tour, Cavaliere said, the group is building a custom sound system more powerful— – over 6000 watts – —than any they used before. But they’re not going to play so loud. “Before,” he said, savoring his words, “it was just obnoxiously loud.”

* * *

The group’s ultimate argument is that after three years they looked around and found that, if they were not exactly poor, Terry Knight was even less poor. Their personal fortunes are estimated at around $200,000 each. Knight is, by his own estimation, a millionaire.

“I invested my money as I saw proper,” Terry said. “I seem to have invested it very well. I’ve been very lucky. . . . If they’re bad fucking investors, it’s their fault. Why bitch to me about it?”

By the end of our interview Knight seemed to be displaying signs of the “extreme anxiety, mental strain, anguish and suffering and physical and emotional distress” for which he claims $1 million damages in his suit.

“It’s going to cost them everything they own, and they own a lot,” he said in a low, intense voice. “I’m going to own it, I promise you.”

Of course, this stress may have come from elsewhere. Knight is forming a new label, but record company executives have not been arm-wrestling one another for the right to distribute it. He put together a group called Mom’s Apple Pie and recorded them, but nobody has crawled down the street after him pleading for a piece of the action.

“It’s one of the worst records I ever heard,” said an executive at one company Knight approached. “The most exciting parts were the blank grooves between the cuts.”

And that, of course, sounds just like what everybody said about Grand Funk. 

In This Article: Coverwall, Grand Funk Railroad

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